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Who was "Mr. W. H."?

From Shakespeare's Sonnets. Ed. W. J. Rolfe.

If we assume that the Sonnets are autobiographical, and that all, or nearly all, are addressed to two persons — a young man beloved of the poet, and the "dark lady," with whom they were both entangled — can these persons be identified? The majority of the critics who accept the personal theory assume that the "Mr. W. H." of the dedication was this young man, rather than the collector or editor of the poems.

The only theories concerning the young man (whether "Mr. W. H." or not) that are worthy of serious consideration are that he was William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, or that he was Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton.

As early as 1819 Mr. B. H. Bright suggested that Herbert was the man, and this theory has steadily gained favour with biographers and critics. The editor of the "Temple" edition, who accepts the Southampton theory, writing a few years ago, believed that the Herbert theory was "in the ascendant." He added: "Many a former ally of Southampton has rallied round the banner unfurled by Herbert's redoubtable champion, Mr. Thomas Tyler." But more recently (in 1897) Sidney Lee, who had been on the side of Herbert, has now (in his article on Shakespeare in the Dictionary of National Biography, and in his Life of Shakespeare) gone over to the Southampton party; and Mrs. Stopes and one or two other recent writers have also joined that faction.

William Herbert was born April 8th, 1580; and in the spring of 1598 he came to reside in London. He was brilliant, accomplished, and licentious; "the most universally beloved and esteemed of any man in London" (Clarendon). To him and his brother Philip, Earl of Montgomery, as two patrons of the dramatist, Heminge and Condell dedicated the folio of 1623. The "Herbertists" assign the Sonnets to the years 1597—1601. The most serious objection to regarding him as "Mr. W. H." (or the person addressed in the Sonnets) was the improbability that the poet would write seventeen sonnets to urge a youth of seventeen or eighteen to marry; but Mr. Tyler discovered, from letters preserved in the Record Office, that in 1597 the parents of William Herbert were engaged in negotiations for his marriage to Bridget Vere, daughter of the Earl of Oxford. The course of the parental match-making ran smooth for a while, but was soon checked by obstacles not clearly explained in the correspondence. Shakespeare may have written the seventeen sonnets at the request of Herbert's mother, the Countess of Pembroke.

It is a curious fact that Grant White, in his first edition of Shakespeare (1865) had said of Sonnets 1 — 17: "There seems to be no imaginable reason for seventeen such poetical petitions. But that a mother should be thus solicitous is not strange, or that she should long to see the beautiful children of her own beautiful offspring. The desire for grandchildren, and the love of them, seem sometimes even stronger than parental yearning. But I hazard this conjecture with little confidence."

Mr. Tyler also attempted to prove that the "dark lady" was Mary Fitton, maid of honour to Queen Elizabeth, and mistress of Herbert, by whom she had a child in 1601. The Queen could not overlook the offence, and sent the father to the Fleet Prison. He was soon released, but appears never to have regained the royal favour.

There is no direct evidence to connect Shakespeare with Mistress Fitton; but we find that she was on somewhat intimate terms with a member of his theatrical company, that is, the Lord Chamberlain's Company, and was probably acquainted with other members of it. In 1600 William Kemp, the clown in the company, dedicated his Nine daies wonder to "Mistris Anne Fitton, Mayde of Honour to most sacred Mayde, Royal Queene Elizabeth." As Elizabeth certainly had no maid of honour named Anne Fitton in 1600, while Mary Fitton held such office from 1595 to 1601, either Kemp or his printer probably made a mistake in the lady's Christian name in the dedication. As Mr. Tyler suggests, the form "Marie" might be so written as to be easily mistaken for "Anne." Mary had a sister Anne, who was married to John Newdigate on the 30th of April, 1587, and who could not, therefore, have been maid of honour in 1600.

A statue of Mary Fitton exists as a part of the family monument in Gawsworth Church, Cheshire; and the remnants of colour upon it were thought by Mr. Tyler (as by others who have seen it) to indicate that she was of dark complexion, with black hair and eyes, like the lady of the second series of the Sonnets. But Lady Newdigate-Newdegate (Gossip from a Muniment Room, 1898) states that two portraits of Mary represent her as of fair complexion, with brown hair and gray eyes.

It is a point in favour of the Herbert theory that Sonnets 135, 136, and 143 indicate that the person to whom the poems in the other series were addressed was called "Will;" but Mr. Lee considers that "Will" in these sonnets is only a play on Shakespeare's own name and the lady's "will." It is true that such quibbles on "Will" are found elsewhere in his works, but it is doubtful whether anyone but a "Southamptonite " would see them in these sonnets.

Henry Wriothesley was born October 6th, 1573. As we have seen, the Venus and Adonis and the Lucrece were both dedicated to him, and tradition says that he was a generous patron of the poet. In September, 1595, he fell in love with Elizabeth Vernon, a cousin of the Earl of Essex. This lost him the favour of the Queen and involved him in serious troubles. In 1598 he secretly married Elizabeth Vernon. On account of his connection with the rebellion of Essex he was condemned to death, but the sentence was commuted to imprisonment for life. He was pardoned in 1603 when James came to the throne, and the 107th Sonnet is supposed by Mr. Gerald Massey to be Shakespeare's congratulation upon his release from prison and restoration to royal favour. The initials in "Mr. W. H.," according to some of the critics who identify him with Southampton, arc those of Henry Wriothesley transposed as a "blind."

When Southampton was seventeen (1590) he was urged by Burghley to marry his granddaughter, Lady Elizabeth Vere, a daughter of the Earl of Oxford, but the youth declined the alliance. If the Sonnets were addressed to him, the first seventeen could hardly have been written at this time (which is earlier than any date assumed for the poems), but the efforts of his friends to find him a wife continued for several years afterwards.

While Mr. Lee believes that such of the Sonnets as are personal in their character are addressed to Southampton, he does not understand that nobleman to be the "Mr. W. H." of the dedication. He says: "No peer of the day bore a name that could be represented by the initials 'Mr. W. H.' . . . The Earl of Pembroke was, from his birth to the date of his succession to the earldom in 1601, known by the courtesy title of Lord Herbert, and by no other name, and he could not have been designated at any period of his life by the symbols 'Mr. W. H.'" This may be admitted, but it does not prove that the "Mr. W. H." of the dedication was not meant to refer ambiguously to him. If Thorpe knew the history of the Sonnets, and that both the author and the person to whom they were addressed did not wish to have them printed, he certainly would not venture to inscribe the book in distinct terms to the Earl of Pembroke; but he might be inclined to give an indirect hint to those who were acquainted with the story underlying the poems that he also knew of the Earl's connection with it. He could do this with perfect safety by using the initials "W. H." which, as Mr. Lee elsewhere remarks, were common to many names, and which therefore could not he proved to be meant to suggest "William Herbert."

But after all it matters little whether "W. H." was meant for "William Herbert" or "Henry Wriothesley," so far as either the Herbert or the Southampton theory is concerned. In either case they might refer to the "begetter" of the poems as the collector or editor, though the other interpretation of "begetter" seems to accord better with the rest of the dedication. Mr. Lee thinks that Mr. W. H. is "best identified with a stationer's assistant, William Hall, who was professionally engaged, like Thorpe, in procuring 'copy,'" and who, in 1606, "won a conspicuous success in that direction, and conducted his operations under cover of the familiar initials." Thorpe "gave Hall's initials only because he was an intimate associate who was known by those initials to their common circle of friends." But, though Thorpe was "bombastic" in his dedications, and might wish to Hall "all happiness" and even "eternitie," it is unlikely that he would wish him that "eternitie promised by our ever-living poet." Promised to whom? Mr. Lee refers it to the eternity that Shakespeare in the Sonnets "conventionally foretold for his own verse," but this interpretation is a desperate attempt to force the expression into consistency with his theory. The words plainly mean "promised in the Sonnets to the person to whom they are addressed." This promise is far more prominent in the Sonnets than that of their own immortality, which, indeed, is made dependent on the enduring fame of the youth who is their theme and inspirer.

If it were proved beyond a doubt that "Mr. W. H." was William Hall, or some other person who secured the Sonnets for Thorpe, I should none the less believe that Herbert rather than Southampton was their "patron " and subject. The only facts worth mentioning in favour of Southampton are that the earlier poems were dedicated to him, and that certain personal allusions in the Sonnets can be made to refer to him if we suppose them to have been written some four years before their more probable date. But Mr. Lee himself admits that these allusions are equally applicable to Herbert. "Both," he says," enjoyed wealth and rank, both were regarded by admirers as cultivated, both were self-indulgent in their relations with women, and both in early manhood were indisposed to marry, owing to habits of gallantry." It may be added that both were noted for personal beauty, though Mr. Lee thinks that Francis Davison's reference to the beauty of Herbert in a sonnet addressed to him in 1602 is "cautiously qualified" in the lines : —
"[His] outward shape, though it most lovely be,
Doth in fair robes a fairer soul attire."
Anybody who had not a theory to defend would see that the eulogy of the "fairer soul" enhances instead of "qualifying" the compliment to the "most lovely" person. This is a good illustration of Mr. Lee's perverse twisting of quotations for the purposes of his argument. He even finds a reference to Southampton's longhair (shown in his portrait) in the 68th Sonnet, where Shakespeare "points to the youth's face as a map of what beauty was ' without all ornament, itself and true,' before fashion sanctioned the use of artificial 'golden tresses'" — though this is only one out of several illustrations of the poet's antipathy to false hair. See Love's Labour's Lost, iv. 3. 258, Merchant of Venice, iii. 2. 95, and Timon of Athens, iv. 3. 144.

How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare's Sonnets. Ed. W. J. Rolfe New York: American Book Company, 1905. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2009. < >.

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